What is healthy these days? How does one go about eating “healthily”?
Who the hell knows. How could you know?
The definitions are constantly shifting. Before you needed carbs for energy, now you need less because carbs turn to sugar then fat. Then “healthy fats” became good for you, but what kind of fats? Satured? Unsaturated? Polyunsaturated? Where to begin?
But protein is good for you, right? Sure, but how much? Not too much. Consume too much and it literally sucks the calcium from your bones.
Then, the marketing. The marketing that, for all intents and purposes, lies to consumers regarding how healthy or unhealthy certain food products are. Then there’s the sugar, which is addictive. Then there’s the supermarkets themselves, designed to lure you in. Then there’s consumer culture.
The struggle is real. Very real. It’s extremely hard to eat healthy in the year 2017.
Compounding this: Health Star Ratings, the front-of-pack labelling system designed to help consumers make healthy choices.
It’s being exploited, tampered with and presented to a public ill-equipped to make sense of them in the first place.
Milo, the most Australian of drinks, is perhaps the clearest example. Milo displays its 4.5 star rating proudly. A 4.5 stars that only applies if Milo is consumed with a very specific amount of skimmed milk. If the health star rating was based solely on Milo’s own nutritional values — eaten straight from the tin — it would actually score 1.5 stars, not 4.5.
Milo literally receives a higher health star rating if eaten with ice-cream.
Yet the 4.5 star rating sits on the tin, not 1.5.
The system is rife with bizarre contradictions like this.
Certain brands of clean, unsweetened Greek yoghurts sit at 1.5 stars. Some lolly bags sit at 2.5.
Sugary cereals regularly score 4 stars.
Salmon sits at 3 stars, beer battered chips sit at 4.
Health Star Ratings are fundamentally broken.
“The final algorithm used was prepared by the food industry and has a few anomalies.”
That’s Rosemary Stanton. She’s been a renowned nutritionist for 50 years. Rosemary was part of the original Working Party asked to design the Health Star Ratings. A change of government saw her removed from the final committee; a committee that featured no nutritionists whatsoever.
Ultimately Rosemary had nothing to do with the Health Star Ratings as they currently exist. She’s very disappointed with the results.
According to Rosemary, the system was designed to reduce Australian intake of certain nutrients (like salt, saturated fats and sugar) and never truly functioned as an arbiter of what’s “healthy”. It’s an algorithm skewed to favour increases in certain other nutrients. Nutrients that don’t necessarily contribute to general health but make it relatively easy for food companies to game the system.
An example: Australians generally don’t consume enough fibre, so the Health Star Rating’s algorithm favours foods with high fibre content.
“Products containing additional dietary fibre can get bonus points which can be used to offset negative points they get for saturated fat or sugar,” Rosemary says.
Bonus points like these allow Kellogg’s to add fibre to its cereal formula for additional stars. This is how a product like Nutrigrain gets a 4 star rating despite the fact it’s still literally 27 per cent sugar.
“A food technologist can ‘manipulate’ many highly processed products to get more stars,” explains Rosemary. “For example, they can add inulin — a white powder that counts as dietary fibre. They can boost protein by adding soy protein isolate or milk powder.”
The issue: Health Star Ratings are not designed to rate products based on their overall “healthiness”. They’re designed to attack a handful of key deficiencies in the Australian diet.
The end result: A system that confuses consumers instead of informing them.
Worse still, most consumers aren’t aware that Health Star Ratings are designed to be compared only to products in their category. It isn’t a catch-all rating that judges a product’s health level compared to other packaged foods.
This is why some organic nuts can literally rate the same as lollies in the sweets aisle. This is why sugary cereal can rate higher than packaged salmon. Macadamia nuts are being ranked compared to almonds or walnuts. Salmon is being compared with other types of packaged fish like tuna.
Most consumers are completely unaware of this.
Aloysa Hourigan is Program Manager at Nutrition Australia. She sees the Health Star Ratings as an improvement upon previous box labelling — they’re more visual, easier to parse than previous attempts like the Nutritional Information Panel. But she admits there’s work to be done.
“More consumer education is required,” she says.
Currently Health Star Ratings are not mandatory. It’s an opt-in scheme and companies will rarely opt-in unless there are benefits. The end result: There are very few products out there with low ratings, which makes for a faulty spectrum on what is healthy and what isn’t.
“There is room for improvement,” continues Aloysa. “Especially making it mandatory and extending it to include less healthy foods.”
Currently the Health Star Ratings only apply to packaged foods. Rosemary Stanton sees this as a missed opportunity: She believes ratings should be applied to fresh fruit and vegetables. She says all unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds should automatically be given 5 stars, whereas discretionary junk foods should never rate higher than 2.5 stars.
“Some kind of Health Star Ratings system would be a good thing,” believes Rosemary, “but its current incarnation is flawed.
“My own preference is to look at foods rather than nutrients.”
Nestle believes it is perfectly within its rights to present Milo as a 4.5 star drink despite its nutritional value actually sitting at 1.5 stars.
“The rating has been taken to represent food as prepared,” a representative said. “The health star rating as you consume it.
“Milo is consumed in 90% of cases with milk.”
As you might expect, Nestle is a fan of the Health Star Rating in general.
“We think the health star ratings are a good thing,” a representative told us.
“We’ve made the commitment to add the HSR to our products.”
Nestle’s only issue: Not enough companies have matched their commitment. They’d like to see more companies commit to using the ratings system. Nestle defends the government’s choice to rate foods by category.
“The government is trying to communicate within categories,” said Nestle. “The real intention is to help consumers at point of sale to make a decision within a category.”
Surprisingly CHOICE, Australia’s most recognisable not for profit consumer organisation, agrees.
CHOICE has been quick to call out companies like Nestle for their misleading use of the Health Star Ratings system, and recently urged regulators to expand and strengthen the scheme, but it feels — for the most part — that the Health Star Rating system is a good one.
“From where we were to where we are today,” said a CHOICE representative, “the health stars have been a significant step in the right direction.”
A surprising statement, but perhaps not too surprising. CHOICE was part of the committee that helped create Health Star Ratings in the first place.
“Yes, we had input into the process along the way alongside other groups,” CHOICE admits. “Because our research had shown that the healthy intake guide was ineffective.
“We knew the system needed to be improved and were happy to be involved in that process.”
But regardless of their involvement, CHOICE has proactively called out flaws in the system, but these tend to be directed at companies trying manipulate the system. CHOICE rarely criticise the system itself.
In a recent post they made calls to “strengthen” and “expand” the existing scheme, and refer to examples like Milo and Nutrigrain as “anomalies”.
“These cases,” believe CHOICE, “undermine the positive effect of Health Star Ratings in the marketplace.”
Unlike nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, CHOICE believes that food companies reformulating cereal to gain additional health stars is a good thing. Better for Nutrigrain to have less sugar than more. Better for it to have more fibre than less.
“We think it’s a good system. Massive improvement.
“That’s clearly how the health star system has worked. If we had the intake guide, it’s unlikely these healthier reformulations would have come into the market place.”
There’s a pragmatism to the Health Star Ratings, but very clear issues. We’re at a crossroads: Either the government commits to a dramatically higher level of consumer education or it reinvents the Health Star Ratings completely.
Rosemary Stanton clearly believes the system needs a reboot, Aloysa Hourigan more conservative.
“All labelling systems have their failings,” she believes.
“More consumer education is required to understand the HSR system. This is probably a better strategy than developing a brand new system.
What does that education look like? More point-of-sale information, increased government spending, and a better relationship with health professionals would be a good start, says Aloysa.
The good news: A report is due in the middle of this year that reviews the first two years of the Health Star Rating. Later, post-2019 a fully fledged five year review will take place. A Technical Advisory Committee has already been established for that purpose and — thankfully — there’s a nutritionist on board this time (Rosemary Stanton approved no less).
Rosemary believes this is in response to the numerous complaints made about the system.
CHOICE, to its credit, released its own two year report that addressed many of the concerns that nutritionists like Rosemary Stanton have with Health Star Ratings, but was complimentary of its reach, visibility and ability to communicate basic nutritional information.
But the problem lies in the quality and accuracy of that information. That’s what needs to change.